|UNHACKABLE HEART: Cole -- Black Hat|
Tessa lifted her lips in a lopsided grin. “Haven’t you told me that you liked my black hat? Didn’t you suggest I liked my black hat too?”
Cole nodded. “I do. I know you do. If you don’t have your black hat skills down, you can’t be wicked slick with your white hat. So you like attacking and hacking better than defending and counter-hacking?”
She pointed at the screen where Glenn and the demonologist had trapped a demon behind the basement furnace. A wireless microphone setup downstairs made it possible for her to hear the demon screech. “How can Glenn keep standing there and not run?”
Cole leaned closer to her, settling big hands over her ears and pulled her face against his chest. When the demon screamed again, she barely heard it over the thudding of his heart. He shivered. Why was he doing all this? She didn’t even want to be here, experiencing this. He’d made it more than clear enough he did not want to deal with these ghosts either.
He pressed harder against her ears as a shudder rippled through his body. His baritone rumbled in his chest and it sounded like, “I knew it was him in my head last night.” He let go of her ears and picked her up before moving out the van door. “Don’t look.”
But she had already looked around him, back at the monitor with the demon. The evil thing was morphing into different shapes before it split in two. “Tessa,” it hissed, echoing through the house and into the yard. She whimpered hearing the voice from her nightmares even as the shape solidified in the mirror image of Sam Kendall.
“No, no, no. Sammy?” she whispered her disbelief, this had to be another nightmare, not real-time. She hadn’t seen him in a decade except for coming back to court when she tried to make their separation finalized into a divorce. He hadn’t killed himself or her even though he went against a restraining order and had tried coming after her in the city once. Good thing she had been dating a cop.
She’d thought after all the years Sammy would give her a divorce. He never had even though the judge had pounded his gavel and declared the dissolution. Then Sammy had sworn he would kill himself if she signed the papers. She’d never received the paperwork to finalize her divorce. And after months of waiting, she’d broken down and called him about it. Sammy had shot out his brains that night, leaving a note blaming her for his death. She’d ended up a widow, not a divorcee.
Cole slid his hand over her eyes, blocking her view of the screen. “God, help Tessa, help Glenn.”
“I don’t agree with you, Cole. How could God really exist and leave me in this forsaken house? He either does not care about the peons on Earth, or He is a mean and not funny kind of deity. Imagine watching your steamy bathroom mirror scratch out letters with an invisible finger, telling you today you die.”
“So you believe He exists, at least.”
She shook her head. “No more than the Easter Bunny, dude.”
Something loud and bright exploded from inside the house. Another blinding flash came from the direction of the cave. She waited for her ears to stop ringing.
Tessa. A growl swarmed the air around her.
“You’re not real,” she shouted. “Get out of my life!”
But a red haze formed next to the van, transparent yet taking on Sam’s size and face. Sammy pointed at her. “You can’t trust them, Tessa. It’s not going to be okay. You’re not.”
Sammy looked over at Cole and the red transparency throbbed like a heartbeat, more ominous with each pulse. “You and your younger brother were not supposed to get involved. Not now. Not then. Didn’t I warn you a decade ago I had acres in the middle of nowhere to bury you?”
Cole stepped in front of Tessa. “Go back and stay in hell where you belong.”
The red pulse throbbed yet another shade deeper like fresh blood, moving in a red haze behind them to stop beside Tessa. Sam’s image sharpened inside the huge misshapen orb. “You,” Sammy yelled, and the orb bumped her back a step. “Were supposed to be scared to leave me, not more determined than ever to pursue your education and a career!”
Knees shaky, her anger gave her strength if not courage. “And you wouldn’t leave this haunted house and your damned cash crops!”
Glenn thundered out the front door and into the yard before skidding to a stop when he stood even with Tessa facing the ghost of her dead husband. He grabbed Tessa’s hand and Cole’s hand, “Pray now.” As the demonologist joined them, swinging the decanter of burning incense and shaking a crystal cross to sprinkle holy water over the red orb of Sam, Glenn prayed. “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to go back to hell.”
Sammy growled, mixing his voice with a darker inhumane roar. “You can run but you can’t hide.”
She heard him yelling that at her a decade past at the top of his lungs, threatening to kill her when he found her.
The Latin chant continued.
The next shower of holy water passed over the red orb, shrinking it, until she could see Sammy only from the waist up. Men continued to pray. A screech like electronic feedback squelched a pain in her ears as the image morphed again, Sammy with a gun pointed at his head. The gun fired. Tessa screamed.
The red orb imploded down to a tiny red dot like a laser, flying around the area of Tessa’s heart, glowing like a red laser sight against her pink shirt. Cool drips of water showered her from the cross before the red dot sizzled like a wet coal and then exploded with a bang like a red firework on July fourth.
“It’s finished,” Glenn stated, holding out a hand to help her to her feet where the demon had been vanquished back to hell, where she had been knocked on her butt.
She did not accept his hand up. She did not accept Cole’s either. She climbed to her feet and dusted off the seat of her jeans. “I want to go now.”
When Cole moved like he intended to put his arm around her, maybe to help steady her knees, she lifted her hand in front of her face, giving him the universally understood sign to stop.
Tessa spun around and walked into the house. She flicked on a light and ran upstairs. After digging around in drawers, she stuffed a glass hitter and a baggie of Sam’s own homegrown into her front left pocket. The rest could be donated, or new owners could have it, but not the flipping drugs.
She sniffled, trying to hold back the emotional wreckage from flooding out. She marched to Glenn’s truck before hopping in the truck bed. She sat, pulling her knees up, and burying her face. Hot tears squeezed out, making her that much madder at herself.
It wasn’t going to be okay. She wasn’t going to do the right thing. Sammy must have some future knowledge to know Cole and Glenn were brothers. He couldn’t have meant anyone else who has helping her, involved in this, now. Hadn’t Sammy warned her not to trust them? Hadn’t she known better, since a long time ago, than to believe anything Sammy told her? Interacting with his ghost, or a demon, or whatever it was . . . had managed to mess up her head again.
She rubbed one hand over her front pocket and Sam’s stash. “Great,” she muttered with despair, packing drugs now. No. Nothing was going to be all right.
Cole hopped up in the truck bed beside her as the paranormal team whooped and wooted their victory. “You know,” he stated and then sighed. One of his hands stroked down her crown to rub her shoulders. “You know when I said it that I didn’t mean it like he did.”
Two more tears squeezed onto her jeans. Cole had told her precisely the same thing as Sam had screamed at her. You can run, but you can’t hide. Once upon a time, Sammy had not left it open-ended as Cole had. Just the same, hearing it digitally from the man on the computer messing with her head had scared her as badly as when Sam said it.
The many aliases of the man in the truck with her had made plays for her heart. She’d told him in any form to back off and had unplugged her modem after he told her goodbye and the received dialup bytes started to swell. He’d intended to cement up her hard drive, to take her out of the fight. It worked for a while, as she ghosted and went back to school to learn to fight anyone coming after her with anything like that again. She’d had a knack for it, scoring on her black hat before her white one.
Cole scooted up right in front of her. “Don’t cry, sweetheart.”
“Don’t make me madder, so I can stop,” she sniffled against her jeans. “Not fit for company right now.”
“I love you, Tessa.”
“Some kind of sickness must make me attracted to you.” She swiped her eyes and lifted her face. “But don’t you dare play with my head or my heart. I will hurt you this time, dude. Want to see if I’m up to the challenge?”
“Time to fly on to the next challenge.”
She shook her head and then poked his chest with her fingernail. “It’s on, Stone.”
Glenn walked over to the back of his truck. “Couldn’t have predicted it would go down like this, Tessa. Sometimes the ghosts won’t even come out to play on demand.” He shrugged. “I’m not sorry it’s done and will never haunt you again, only sorry for the way it happened.”
“Will you take me to Haven now?”
Her temper ticked at another shared stare between Glenn and Cole, silent communication. Not because they were buds, but brothers. She pointed at the handheld camera in Glenn’s hand. “Put that last part of Sammy up anywhere, dude, and I’ll take it down every single time.”
One blond eyebrow arched. “No thanks, just a threat and a ride to Haven?”
“If you want to take it as a threat, then what can I say? I promise Haven will be safe as long as me and my ex-demon of a husband don’t show up anywhere.” She leaned up and over, brushing her lips against Glenn’s cheek. “Thank you, Glenn. Thank you so very much.”
Glenn cocked his head. “You’ve been riding with Cole. Why do you want to ride with me now?”
“To get to Haven and a public access computer.” She stood and jumped over the side of the truck. “I have walked out of here in the middle of the night and I can do it again.”
Cole caught her elbow and spun her around. “You’re not being logical, Tess. You’re acting like you’re about five.”
“Keep thinking that, dude. Thinking I’m stupid is part of my MO. It’ll hurt that much more when I hammer you.”
“Get on the back of my bike and cool down during the ride to Haven.”
She needed a ride after all and swung over the back of his bike.
Before he took off down the gravel road, Cole looked back at her. “I’m not your enemy and you know that. I’ve been your guardian angel for a long time, Tessa.”
“Get ready to be shot down and to fall from Grace.”
He upped the speed, bumping them down the road toward the highway. He shook his head. “You wouldn’t be so foolish as to threaten me as you once did.”
She whispered in his ear. “You can run but you can’t hide.”
“Chill out, woman.” He opened the throttle on the highway, ending any further conversation.
Along the way, she rested her cheek against his back. How could the enemy smell so hot? Was it some kind of lure to pull at her above all else? They fought on the same side at night in the cyberwar, nudging global justice. He hadn’t been her enemy for a long long time. She admired his mind. She inhaled again. She wanted his body.
At Haven, she moved to the last computer in the back left side. She hopped on, hopped over and around, twisting IPs, twisting the rules to work for her. She plugged in a green USB to encrypt her message. Time to find out if Yori Korshovf could be trusted to work for in patching Medatron’s medical devices; if he would agree for her not to allow him permissions to access each unique identifier for the ICDs. If not, he wanted an assassin, not someone to help make people with pacemakers safe. She logged onto a public access email account before dropping it into a new draft.
Cole ambled over toward her, holding two cups of steaming coffee. He stepped behind her to shoulder surf as she logged out.
“Do you mind, mister?”
He held out one coffee and sat beside her. “Peace offering.”
She did not accept the coffee; instead she patted her front left jean pocket. “Got my own peace pipe if I want peace.”
A rumble growled from his throat. Cole set the coffee next to her computer. He pointed at the portal page in front of her. “Who else do you talk to like that in emails besides me?”
She shrugged and clicked a link on the page to an article. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Starting to tick me off, Tessa.”
“About damn time,” she muttered.
“Thought you ghosted? What are doing back on an old alias email account? Why don’t you whip out your phone and call Korshovf?”
“Listen, you invasive-evasive-pen-testing-privacy-stealing-hack—“
He lifted a finger to cover her lips. “Why don’t you tell me how you really feel about me?”
The man was impossible! She growled and turned back to the computer. She ignored Glenn when he came in and then his IM five minutes later. She continued to wait, not reading, not doing anything, sitting in front of a screen with Cole on her right side. Impatient to check for a response, she turned toward Cole. “Do you mind? Back off! Do I need to be ruder for you to grasp my general meaning?”
He nodded toward the screen. “I’ve seen it now. You check it or I’ll log on here and do it. Which would you prefer?”
“I’d prefer you dropping off the planet.” Just the same, she leaned toward the screen, leaning to her right, blocking him and checked the drafts. She pulled a message through an algorithm decryption via her thumb drive.
This is what your country thinks of you. I will pick you up after you try it.
You will discover that I am the only one telling you the truth.
She deleted the draft and clicked out. She ejected her USB and logged off at Haven.
She picked up her cell phone. She dialed her friend and colleague’s number. When his voicemail clicked on, she frowned. David unplugged during prime time carpe notcum hours? After the beep, she left him a vague message. “Stranded in Podunk. Where are you? Going to negotiate terms. Coming?” She hung up.
Cole leaned forward. “If you don’t start sharing with me, trusting me, you’re gonna drive me crazy enough to clone your phone.”
She stood up. “Not funny. Stay away from me, Cole Stone, if you have any wisdom at all.”
She walked into Glenn’s office. She dropped a check on his desk. “Please let me know when all your beautiful landscaping is done.”
“Where are you going, Tessa?” Glenn inquired.
“Bye, Glenn. Thank you.” She walked out of his office and out of Haven.
In another few minutes, she had walked a few blocks to the mechanic’s garage. She used the other set of keys and unlocked her trunk. She dug through a suitcase before finding her passport. She tucked it into her back pocket and then slammed her trunk. She had liked this old heap with no tracking devices, no modern technology, and wished it had made it all the way to tryouts for her. She decided to keep her room at the hotel for a week, to leave her laptops. All she needed was her passport and her code, everything else she could acquire along the way.
Her cell sang out, alerting her to a new text and a number she did not recognize. Don’t try it.
Glenn had her number. David had it. The senator had it. Other than that, her phone number was registered under a bogus male name with an Alaskan address. Could that stop Yori? Could it stop Cole? “Oh hell no,” she muttered.
Had Cole whipped up some black magic forensic science to retrieve the deleted message and decode it this quickly? “Big dumb jerk,” she announced into the dawn and turned off her cell phone.
A semi-trailer pulled to a stop at a red light heading east, the direction of the airport. Tessa ran before he could roll forward. The man noticed her and rolled down his window. “Need a lift?”
“Yes thank you,” she said and climbed up and into the passenger seat. “How far are you going?”
“All the way to the coast.”
“Will you drop me off in Louisville? I’m headed for the airport.”
“My pleasure.” He started the almost two hour drive there.
When he dropped her off near the airport, Tessa thanked him and walked into the building.
She approached a ticket desk and paid cash for a flipping high dollar flight to Moscow . . . with a lot of connecting flights. She turned from the counter, returning her ID and letting out a shaky exhale. See, don’t be paranoid. She was no terrorist. She loved this country; did it love her? Even Homeland Security wouldn’t go so far as to put her on the no-fly list.
With only her USB sticks, her passport, her cell phone, and her ticket, she walked close to the entry gate where security scanners and officers stood guard. Don’t let Yori make you paranoid, she reasoned but stopped walking forward. Stop and think, you can do it, stop spinning out of control and stop the spin. On a guard’s chair, one long-stemmed white rose sat in contrast to the black seat. She looked at every person working security. No women, what a shame. Way too creepy after seeing a white rose, the flower that Yori had rained down on her for the last month.
Don’t try it, blared the warning across her mind, loud and insistent. Louder than her instincts normally alerted her, the warning came again. Don’t try it, pounded across her mind and her heart, imprinting a bit harder.
She shivered. The last time this had happened, she had been pretty sure it was God, pounding through her head and her heart again and again, Don’t go in there. But what had she done, she’d gone right back on the computer and into the siege of the cyberwar. If Bob was the bunny, then Alice followed him down the rabbit hole, falling down, down, down and becoming Evil Eve at the bottom on that very night. She hadn’t heard from Him in the ten years since. She hadn’t tried to talk to Him either. Don’t try it, pounded at her one last time.
Tessa looked at the white rose again and blew out a deep exhale. Her chin lifted on automatic pilot, game face in place, and her feet moved forward. She dropped her stuff into a basket and walked through the scanner. Her belly button ring set it off. She’d flown a hundred flights and they wanded her every time and let her through. Her stuff rolled through the security line and inspection.
A man in a black suit walked over to the basket with her belongings and scooped it up. “Tessa Kendall, come with me,” he demanded in clearly not a requesting tone.
“Great,” she muttered and followed the man into a room down past the gate. He opened a door to the room and waved her inside. “Great,” she muttered again. “I hope you have a good reason for stopping me. I’m gonna miss my flight if this isn’t fast, so please tell me why.”
He opened another door, leading into another room. “You have a known association with Yori Korshovf, a cyber-terrorist. What’s so important in Russia? What’s on these?” He held up the USB necklace.
They usually passed through inspection along with her laptop computers. She did not believe it would help her cause to explain that Yori owned a legitimate if extremely vulnerable medical implantable device company. She’d be damned before she’d say anything and have her desire to secure the ICDs look like when her husband’s attorney had called her a hacker. She had been working as a pen tester. It had taken a lot of control not to open their minds that good hacker wasn’t an oxymoron. She had a piece of paper certifying her as ethical, would that help? She growled.
When a wooden chair clacked down on the tile, Tessa glanced past the open door and into the next room toward the noise.
Cole stood up, clattering the chair again when he scooted back as when he lowered the front legs to the floor. She went from looking really happy to see him to looking really happy to see him dead.
“No, no, no,” she said like she wanted to refuse why he could be here.
“Yes, Tessa. I’m with DHS now.” If she started preaching the evils of Homeland Security to him, Cole wasn’t sure what he’d do. He’d prayed she would not come through the gate. “I didn’t personally put you on the list to be detained, Tessa. Your insatiable curiosity, plus the ability to hack into trouble did.”
“I’ve got this,” he said to his colleague Joe, another one-time outlaw. “I’m recruiting her like I did you once.”
“I want to catch my flight, Stone. Got business with another headhunter.”
“Too damned bad.” He leaned closer to Tessa. “At least you don’t carry so often you think about hiding it, but you could be in a lot of trouble with that weed in your pocket. What are you, stoned? Do you want to come with me, or do you want to stay and be arrested by Joe? Stop making bad choices. You’ve been struck stupid since you’ve seen Sam’s ghost.”
He walked over to the basket on a desk and held out her stuff to her. “Now.”
When she grabbed her USB necklace, sliding it around her neck, he escorted her through a maze of offices and toward a different exit. Tick tap. Tick tap. Tick tap. Her necklace bounced against her navel ring and he growled. He couldn’t hurry her any more or they’d be running, but Korshovf had told her he’d send someone for her, that he’d take her to Russia. If his enemy saw this woman in real-time, he’d pursue her for the rest of her days.
She opened her mouth, but Cole warned her. “Don’t talk to me right now.” He wanted to wring her lovely neck. He wanted to hole up with her somewhere safe. He wanted her.
She opened her mouth again. “There was a white rose inside.”
“And?” He reached his bike. No helmets, no hats, just in an all out hurry to beat her to the airport.
She looked like she really didn’t want to tell him. So what else was new? She had the nerve to sigh. “Yori sends me white roses pretty often. I think maybe he has someone close by, watching me.”
“You should come with a danger label.” He swung on and then she did. He started his bike.
Cole drove an hour east before pulling into morning sunshine at a rest area. He shut off his bike and stood up before she could. “So far in real-time with you, you’ve been stranded in some old heap. No idea where your good car is or why you are driving that clunker. You tweaked code for some implantable medical device off that purple USB not even ten minutes after I gave you a ride to Haven. I’ve been to an honest-to-God haunted house, not once but three times, once when you tried to burn the place down. Gonna end up needing to hack DHS, if you don’t start sharing with me.”
She stood up and off his bike.
Cole pointed beyond his shoulder where a camera sat recording entrances into the rest area. “No one has pulled in since us, but Korshovf could be tracking you with eye in the sky. What am I going to do with you, Tessa?”
Green eyes twinkled and she smiled at him, a bright gleam of white and dimples winking. “What do you want to do with me, Cole?”
“If you tease me right now, woman, I’ll drag you off into the bushes.” He pointed from her to him. “Maybe if I persuade you to give into this pull between our bodies, your brain, your heart would start to bond and to trust me.”
He pulled her passport out of her back pocket. “You better believe he knows you’re riding with me. After taking you out of the airport before you could be arrested! You don’t think he’s going to turn over the power of the identifiers in his company’s ICDs? Run from the good guy toward the bad guy will you?” He leaned his face level with hers. “Why stop now? Why don’t you smoke Sam’s stash?”
“Please don’t growl, Cole. I’m sorry. Stop hammering me. You’re right. Happy now?”
He shook his head. “Not even a little bit.”
She tipped up on her toes and brushed her lips across his cheek. “I’m so sorry. Please accept my apology.”
She walked over to the trashcan where she slid a baggie from her pocket into the garbage bag. He heard the clink and crack of glass like the hitter had shattered.
“Good.” Where could he take her where no security cameras could follow? “Hmm.” Korshovf would be able to track them here, so how did they get out without being seen? He couldn’t turn on his phone, nada. So what should he do with her?
When she returned beside him, he slid his arm around her waist and walked her past the restrooms to the semi-trailers parked in a back lot. “I’ll hide you away in the back of one of these big rigs to get you out of here.”
“Okay, Cole. I get it.” Her legs stopped moving forward, but he propelled her forward just the same. “You don’t want me to ride with you anymore. I can find a ride out on my own.”
“Like you did from Podunk? Not up front, where your image can be captured by eye in the sky.”
He continued forward to a generic carrier with a rollup door. He walked toward a cab where a driver climbed in. He pulled out his wallet and handed the man a hundred dollar bill. “To take my lady out of here in the back, but leave the door unlocked.” He pulled out another hundred. “To forget about it if anyone asks.”
The driver agreed and Cole unlocked the backdoor and slid it halfway up. “You’ve got to be kidding me, God,” he said up into the blue morning sunshine. “I’m not that strong.”
Tessa climbed into the trailer half filled with stacked furniture. She plopped down on a stack of mattresses. She patted the plastic cover beside her. “Let’s not split up, please, Cole. Come in here and we’ll kiss and make up. Ghost with me.”
He groaned. He was in trouble. He couldn’t seem to stop wanting to be deeper in trouble. “I’m not leaving you alone, Trouble. Count on it.” He climbed in and pulled the door down a couple inches from closed.
The semi started to roll and he dropped back beside her on the thick plastic coating over a mattress. In all the scenarios of having her in real-time, even he hadn’t come up with this. She smiled at him a bit shyly, not nearly so much boldness in her green eyes and started wreaking havoc on his senses immediately.
“Thank you, Cole.” She ran her fingers over his crown and into his hair. She cupped his face, until he was held captive in her intent gaze. “I don’t know what I’d do if Yori got hold of you.”
“I hear you.”
She reached into her shirt, pulling the necklace out and fingering a purple USB. “I could give him the code that patched his insulin pump. Or the code that can exploit it, a buffer overflow of insulin with a keystroke at 500 meters.”
He held up one hand, copying her earlier, signaling halt, stop, do not proceed. “You met with Yori face-to-face in real-time before you did me.” Okay that wasn’t the point exactly but the blood supply to his logic had fled elsewhere in proximity with her. She made him crazy. He tried again. “Where did you meet with him? Why did you patch him? Oh hell no, Tessa, he’ll never let you ghost now. He’ll be hunting your head all right.”
“A couple months ago in New York City, we met in public. I patched his pump in public with an antenna, reprogrammed it right there. His insulin pump may be brand new, but the potential for long distance exploitation is off the charts.”
“He wants an assassin, babe. You are many things, but not that.”
Tessa huffed out her cheeks. “He said he wanted to make it right; I thought maybe I could save some of the people in the world, those with Medatron’s devices. It would be mutually lucrative.”
Cole cupped her cheek this time. “You will save people. We’re on the same path, Tessa, even if I have to fight the devil to keep you with me. You can’t possibly believe I’d finally be this close to you and let you fall into the hands of my enemy? He’s your enemy too. Not me.”
“Let’s fly to Moscow then. I’ll get rid of him. Do you think I believe you would risk your career, risk your very life, not a digital double, if Yori Korshovf wasn’t an evil man?”
“He’s not in Russia. He’s in DC. Maybe he’s come closer to Louisville now. I don’t know. I’m unplugged because we’ve been seen together and he could track me as easily as you from the airport.”
She grabbed his hand. “There’s another way out, Cole.” She squeezed his hand. “You know the senator that’s really big on privacy rights?” When he nodded, she continued. “I went to him about his pacemaker, afraid he’d be taken out of the game. He hired me and several other tigers to consult, to make sure that doesn’t happen to him, to keep his heart from being hacked. I guarantee he’d send a helicopter for us.”
“Tessa,” he whispered and closed his eyes, wondering how many bombshells she would drop on him. Just the same, he prayed for her to trust him a hundredfold. He blew out a shaky exhale and cocked up on one elbow beside her.
She tapped her other hand against her phone. “Can’t I turn this back on and find out what is happening from David?”
“No. You can’t turn that back on. Who is David?”
“My friend, a digital wizard, you’d like him.”
“You hack with him? I imagine I won’t like him.”
She grinned, her green eyes bold again as she looked him up and down. “He’d like you.”
“I don’t like the way you said that.”
She brushed her lips across his. “Focus, Cole. I’m telling you he’s gay and the only dude I want to hack with otherwise is you.”
The truck changed lanes, rolling her over on him with the force. She slid over on her own, laying on top on him.
“If you think this is helping me focus, lady, I assure you I won’t be able to think of a way out of this if you keep it up.”
She moved against him and he regretted his choice of words, when she nudged him again.
“I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”
He rolled, taking her under him. “I like your boldness, Tessa. I like that you’re as confident as me. I like the idea of binding your body to me with steamy sex.” He nudged her this time. “I don’t want to hack your heart. I want you to give it to me.”
He closed his eyes. “Why tempt me like this?” He wasn’t sure if he was asking her or asking God.
“Why do you do that, you know, pray like you expect an answer?”
“Can’t you hear Him answer at all anymore? Once upon a time, Tess, you believed.”
“Don’t try it was pretty loud, pretty intense, in the airport. But that could have been the subconscious thought planted by you from your text. First time I think I heard anything since Don’t go in there ten years ago.”
He sighed long and loud. He’d been praying both of those things regarding this woman, tonight and a decade ago. He couldn’t do it, couldn’t change her mind about it, but God could.
“Cole,” she whispered and he opened his eyes, staring down at her underneath him. “I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want you to hurt me. It’s a female thing in real-time, why not let me go and see if I fly back to you? Would that leave you exposed and in danger from Yori?”
“What are you so afraid of? I’m not Sam. I’m not the man I was when I was your head cyber ghost. Have I not proven to you yet that I’m not out to hurt you?”
She slid her arms around his neck. “Can’t explain it, just afraid of falling, afraid of getting my heart broken. You’re not married?”
She continued to insult him, but he answered her quietly. “No.”
“Two timing someone?”
He tried not to growl at the questions measuring his ethical code. He nudged her hips with his. “Just your digital double. Not everything in life is sunshine and chocolate, but I intend to stick with you. Same as God will. We are both pinging that firewall around your heart. I can make it shutdown, Tessa. Do you want me to prove it to you?”
She cupped his face with both of her hands, holding his gaze. “There’s nothing to see here, get it? Dull, boring. A security freak.”
“Not invisible, silly woman. Not at all. Not even close. No.”
“How can you work for Homeland Security?”
“That’s who you would be working for in cyber CT. Do you think DHS would be better off without people like me? This morning you would have been busted without a guardian angel. You are not a terrorist. Do you think it would better serve this country if the good guys don’t stay in the fight?”
“Did you mean it when you said you wanted to be partners in work and in our private time? Do you honestly think we could do great things together, could be great together, could have a great life together?”
“Tess, do you think I follow women up trees everyday and say that to them?”
“No, Cole. I don’t.”
“Was I messing with your head or with your heart? I’m not playing. I’m serious about you.”
Her eyes closed but her lips moved almost imperceptibly. Was she praying?
He smoothed his hands down her shoulders and then back up. He tried reverse-engineering the damage done to her head, to her heart, by interacting with Sam’s ghost. “It’s going to be all right. You are going to be all right. You are going to do the right thing. You can trust me, babe. Can you love me?”
Two tears slid out of her closed eyelids, so he wiped away the two hot drops. “Please don’t cry, baby. It rips me up and makes me feel helpless at the same time.”
“How did I get so blessed as to have someone like you as my guardian angel?”
“Are you crying because I love you? That’s not logical. Shouldn’t it make you happy, not sad or mad?”
“I’m happy. I’m illogical and in love because of you.”
He brushed his lips over hers. “Life is good.”
“Except for now I’ve endangered you by dealing with Yori.”
“We will hop off when this truck rolls through the next small town, less likely to be high tech with security cameras along the street. We’ll stay out of any business and I’ll use a payphone.”
“Who are you going to call . . . wait ghost hunters? Yori is the kind of ghost you chase.”
“What I really need is a computer while I keep you out of sight and I can end all this, Tessa.”
“No eye in the sky pinpointing you to be endangered either. I’ll call David, because it’s not right for him to be unplugged during the sweet spot of carpe noctum. I’m worried. I don’t know if Yori would have gone after David. Or the senator. Being unplugged is killing me a little bit.”
“Don’t worry,” he said against her lips. “Best reason to unplug right here.” Time to crash her thinking processes. Time to shutdown the firewall around her heart. They rolled to the side as the truck turned onto an exit ramp, but Cole kept kissing her. His fingers roamed over her body, teasing her, still kissing her when she moaned into his mouth. Her hands roamed over him and they neared the point of no return.
The movement of the truck stopped and then started, stopped and then starting back up. When it stopped again, it jerked and hissed as airbrakes released.
“I’m on the pill,” she told him as he slid her shirt up.
The backdoor squeaked and then loudly rolled up all the way. Tessa screeched and pulled down her shirt. Cole stared at a group of warehouse dock workers as hard as they stared at him. Ignoring laughs and catcalls, he pulled her off the mattress and onto her feet. He jerked on his shirt, pulling it down, but his body was still in hot-sex mode. He glanced at Tessa; they looked like a couple of horny hobos.
“Do you have a payphone?” he asked one of the men.
The man pointed down the front docks. “Next to the canteen.”
A woman touched Tessa’s arm. “There’s a motel three blocks from here in downtown Ashland.”
“North Carolina? Thanks,” Tessa replied before sliding her arm through his and walking faster toward the phone. “I’m calling David.”
“I understand you’re worried about your friend. But he has dealings with Korshovf too, so you will not show up on his radar for Korshovf to find you.”
“The senator then.” She pointed to a big open space in the parking lot. “A helicopter will take us out of here.” Then she pointed at the restroom. “Be right back.”
Cole made the call, bought them a couple cold cans of caffeine and something to munch on. When she returned, she had tried to wet down her hair, scrub her face, but she still looked exhausted.
She accepted the caffeine and kissed his cheek. “Thank you kindly.” She waited and he knew he was testing her patience. She downed the soda and turned to him. “May I ask what we are waiting on? We’re not getting back in the rig?”
A helicopter flew into sight, the whoosh whoosh whoosh of metal blades stirring up dust in the parking lot as it landed.
“That’s not the senator’s helicopter.”
He slid his arm around her waist and started walking toward it. “No. It’s Homeland Security’s.”
Her legs stopped moving forward, so he scooped her into his arms and ran to the open door. “You won’t be arrested, Tessa. Trust me.”
When he sat with her, his colleague Joe turned to face them and stared at Cole for a full minute.
Joe arched one dark brow. “Well well.” He pointed at Tessa. “Listen, you heart hacker—“
“Easy,” Cole suggested.
Joe tossed up his hands. “You can bark at her like in the airport but I can’t.”
Cole nodded. “That about sums it up.”
Joe clasped his hands together between his open knees and nodded toward her. “It would have been nice, if you would have warned me not to plug in the silver USB . . . that it is virtually like an electromagnetic bomb and would kill all the computers networked together in the office.”
She folded her hands together and leaned toward Joe. “That’s the breaks when you take things without permission. I would have told you if you would have told me you planned to plug it in.”
“I asked you what was on them.”
Cole pointed at Joe. “I didn’t ask you to go snooping.”
“Excuse me for being curious about the woman who has you so crazy! I copied them all when neither of you noticed me, when you were recruiting another outlaw. The purple USB with the code for Korshovf’s insulin pump? I seeded it several places. Pretty much viral within fifteen minutes.”
“God help me,” she whispered. “That was stupid, worth a mint, and extremely dangerous code to be sharing.”
Joe nodded again. “I found that out too. Not even an hour later, Korshovf was found dead in a RV outside of Louisville.” He nudged Cole in the shoulder. “I’ll probably be promoted now. You’ve done me a lot of pretty good turns, Cole. You don’t need to worry about any trace of your lady showing up at the airport. In fact, with Korshovf dead she’s off the no-fly list. On the bad side, I’ve made code available that could be used like a how-to if tweaked for any specific frequency to match an ICD identifier.”
Cole slid his arm around her shoulder and pulled her tighter against his side. She looked as pole-axed as he felt. While Tessa had been giving him her trust, her heart, and ready to give him her body, while he had her safely enclosed in the back of a moving rig, the man he’d been protecting her from had been assassinated.
She held up her hands like she was weighing a scale. “Cyber CT for DHS to secure medical devices.” Her hand weighed down like that possibility was heavy. “Partner with you in ICD security which will grow fast with the canned code out there.”
She looked up at him. “God must be real. He must answer prayers. He answered mine; you weren’t hurt by Yori. He planted you on my path. As long as you are part of the deal, Cole,” she smiled as she held up her hands evenly like the scale balanced. “Then I’m open for either.”
Cole laughed. “Let’s go to Vegas, babe.”
“Las Vegas?” She laughed. “What for?”
“To get married, Tessa. To honeymoon before you go to tryouts where you’ll hack a heart and make the team. Then you can tell me which you would rather do when both choices are waiting on you.”
She laughed. “Can I turn on my phone now and invite David? He’d never forgive me if I didn’t. And you might want to let your little brother know, see if he needs a vacation after haunted hell.”
“Is that a yes, Tess?”
“Oh, baby, yes. You best count on it.”
Joe added, “I want to see it too.” He sighed as the couple embraced and tuned him out to kiss. “Life is good.” He glanced out the window at bright afternoon sunshine as the helicopter turned toward Vegas. “God, do you have another heart hacker outlaw angel out there for me this time?”
Happily Ever Afters!